By ELIZABETH GABRIEL WFYI
Dozens of families recently gathered in the cafeteria of HIM By HER Collegiate School for the Arts as the clock ticks down to find a new school for their students before the end of the month.
Days after Christmas, school leaders abruptly announced the school would close after 2 1/2 years in the Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood. The last day of classes is Jan. 20. Now more than 200 students need to find a new elementary school.
“I love this school for my daughter,” parent Samone Curry said. “It’s going to hurt me to have to put her into another school. She’s not ready.”
Curry enrolled her daughter in the school so she could interact with other kids outside of her neighborhood. From the moment she toured the school, she said her family was provided free school supplies and the teachers provided a welcoming learning environment. The school’s name stands for Helping Improve Mankind by Healing Every Race.
Now Curry is trying to figure out which school will best support her kindergartener.
Little is known about why the school, which focuses on Afrocentric curriculum with a performance arts focus, will close its doors in the middle of the academic year. HIM By HER’s co-founder, Harry C. Dunn III, has mostly declined to answer questions from the media.
A statement from Dunn and other school leaders said they were unable to “support and maintain” the 200,000-square-foot building they lease.
Unknown financial situation
Ball State University’s Office of Charter Schools granted the HIM By HER Foundation a charter in November 2019 to open a school. The public university is one of several authorizers in the state that can approve the creation of charter schools.
The school launched for grades K-2 during the COVID-19 pandemic in summer 2020 with only 58 students enrolled. For the 2021-22 school year, Ball State allowed the school to expand and enroll for grades K-6. Enrollment grew to 161 students, according to state data. At the start of the current academic year, HIM By HER enrolled 224 students.
It’s unclear if the state’s tuition support for enrollment was able to cover operating expenses, such as the building lease, because no public audits are available for the charter operator.
Charter schools receive direct per-student funding similar to traditional school corporations and are eligible to receive additional per-student grants. But they don’t receive property tax funds to cover transportation or facilities.
The Office of Charter Schools’ 2020-2021 academic and fiscal accountability report is missing just one financial audit for all the schools it oversees — HIM By HER. A note states the school’s audit “will be uploaded when final audit has been completed and provided to the Office of Charter Schools.”
According to minutes of HIM By HER’s Oct. 7, 2022, board meeting, the school’s 2020 and 2021 financial audits were completed in June and submitted to Ball State.
In a statement, Ball State said the school is undergoing concurrent financial audits for the previous two fiscal years and the process will be completed regardless of the school’s closure.
Options for families, staff members’ next steps
About 30 schools and two employment staffing agencies attended an enrollment fair Jan. 6 to help students and teachers.
Tina Flynn, family and community coordinator at James Russell Lowell School 51 within the Indianapolis Public Schools district, went to recruit students for the school. She believes children should be able to have access to both a stable home and school in order to provide a healthy education and lifestyle for students.
“IPS does have a lot to offer our families and we do have a lot of resources in IPS that a lot of people don’t even, I don’t think, recognize that we have,” Flynn said. “So we’d like to win some of our families back in this community.”
Yet this near northeast side neighborhood, which serves many low-income families, has seen school closures happen time and time again. Forest Manor Middle School closed in 2009. Francis Parker School 56 is expected to close and merge with School 51 at the end of this school year as part of the IPS overhaul plan.
Many families and education advocates, including Flynn, have been concerned how that will impact students’ emotional well-being.
“They’re going to take on all of these different changes,” Flynn said. “That is a difficult process for any child. It’s difficult for the adults, so we know that it’s difficult for every child to stop and start and stop and start.”
Yvonne Bullock, CEO for nearby charter school Indy STEAM Academy, said her 2-year-old school currently serves 164 students and will soon accommodate even more. Bullock said roughly 20 parents called her school once the closure was announced. Now about 30 former HIM By HER students are enrolled at her school. Although the fair was beneficial for her school enrollment, she was also sad to hear about the closure.
“No one wants to relish over seeing a school close,” Bullock said. “And for me as a CEO, when I heard the news, it was very hurtful to me to see a school start with such great aspirations to serve a community and have to come to this. So my goal is to do whatever I can to help the parents with this transition.”
Students and families aren’t the only people who are having to adjust to the new changes. Music teacher Paul McIntosh said he has enjoyed working at HIM By HER since the school opened in 2020.
“Just seeing the scholars grow is very, like, it touches my heart a lot,” McIntosh said. “And I don’t have no negative thing to say here. It was just really a pleasure to work here.”
McIntosh said he has lucked out and received roughly 12 job offers. He will soon begin a new position at the Indy STEAM Academy.
HIM By HER Superintendent and Principal Sondra Towne-Brender said at least half of the staff were able to find jobs during the enrollment fair.
Education editor Eric Weddle contributed to this report.